Why Minnesotans Should be Ticked Off that the New York Times is Trying to Pin Grape Salad on Us
There have been a lot of puzzled looks in Minnesota lately with friends and strangers asking each other if they’ve ever heard of, let alone tried, the infamous New York Times Grape Salad.
Ever since David Tanis tried to pin grape salad on Minnesota in The United States of Thanksgiving, there’s been an uproar over what’s come to be known locally as #grapegate.
One reason people are so upset is because no one here seems to have ever heard of or tried this grape salad. Now for me, that might be because I don’t run in a crowd with a lot of heiresses or maybe it’s because the idea of mixing two cups of sour cream with two pounds of grapes and sticking everything under a broiler makes no culinary sense.
There’s nothing like offending a bunch of people to get them to start talking about what you should have done differently. In this case, Minnesotans have been talking about what dish should have been featured and about how many of the Midwest dishes in the guide don’t make sense. This is usually followed by lots of derogatory comments about the New York Times and people who think of everything between New York and LA as flyover country.
Here at Umami, we’re all about trying new things, so instead of going on a social media rampage, we thought we’d give this grape salad a try. So this past weekend I picked up two pounds of grapes and a whole lot of sour cream to make a batch for my broomball team’s fall cabin weekend. What was interesting was just about everyone had heard about the article and the recipe, but no one had ever tried a dish like it, here or anywhere else.
Making Grape Salad Feels Wrong
As soon as I started mixing the sour cream in with the grapes, it just felt wrong; normally when I start making a recipe, I understand what the ingredients are doing in a dish. There’s just nothing about getting sour cream, grapes, brown sugar, and a broiler together that works.
When I pulled the dish out for dinner, the black grapes had turned a bright purple as if they were embarrassed to be there. Since the recipe didn’t list a preference, I chose black over green grapes because I like them better and wanted to give the dish the best chance to succeed.
The responses at dinner were universally negative – with most people unwilling to even take a second bite. The best thing anyone could say about the dish is it wasn’t the worst thing they had ever eaten, which is strong language for Minnesotans.
My friend Jeff kept referring to the dish as Barney’s Blue Balls Brulee, which would probably be tastier. We even put some leftovers outside overnight to see if any of the local wildlife would take a bite. No dice, even the squirrels know grapes and sour cream don’t go together.
Dishes Actually Served in Minnesota on Thanksgiving
At dinner, we talked a lot about what dish should have been featured in the guide. There has been a lot more discussion about regional cuisine in Minnesota the past few years. It’s a conversation being driven by an exploding food scene with world-class chefs and purveyors creating innovative and interesting food with local ingredients that comes from a strong farm to table movement rooted in Minnesota’s agricultural tradition.
This doesn’t mean hot dishes are a thing of the past, but it does feel like we’re moving towards a better place. The dishes we talked about wanting to eat on Thanksgiving were rooted in the old church basement standards but made with fresher ingredients and in more interesting ways.
We also thought that in a guide like this a dish should have some legs; that it should have been served on a lot of Thanksgiving tables for generations and not on one heiress’s buffet. A few dishes we thought would make sense are Green Bean Casserole, Potatoes Au Gratin, something with corn or wild rice or even roast turkey since Minnesota is one of the largest producers of turkeys in America.
What Happened on the Buffet
As with all major crimes, there are a lot of theories about what really happened. In general, people wanted to give David Tanis the benefit of the doubt, so suspicion focused on the heiress.
In this case, it looks like Colonel Mustard is off the hook and that the evidence points towards a problem with the eyewitness not remembering what really happened. Since it’s hard to mistake grapes, our theory is there was a dish on the buffet, and it did have grapes in it.
The most likely suspects were whip cream or cool whip instead of sour cream, which would go with grapes and could be a nice side dish, especially if it was a rich family that would have other things that tasted good. The other main suspect was sour cream raisin pie, which combines sugar, spices, sour cream, raisins, and vinegar. It’s not a common dish, but it does exist and has occasionally been seen in the area.
In looking through local cookbooks and talking to people, otherwise known as research, the one dish I came across that could get mistaken for New York Times Grape Salad in a line-up is 24 Hour Salad. I’ve never had it, but it was fairly common in cookbooks from the middle part of the last century. 24 Hour Salad calls for the cook to make a custard out of sugar, eggs, and cream that is combined with fruit and rested in the refrigerator for 24 hours – something that could be mistaken for sour cream.
Personally, I like to think the cook didn’t like the family very much and the rich people didn’t know any better.
What the Record Shows
The traditional dishes we eat at holiday meals with friends and family are important. Many Minnesotans have a special connection to Thanksgiving, which in many ways serves as our communal harvest festival before the depths of winter set in.
To get to the bottom of this dish, I spent time going through cookbooks in the special collections section of the Hennepin County Central Library. They have a wonderful collection of cookbooks from churches and auxiliary groups that include recipes from thousands of Minnesotans. The beauty of this type of cookbook is people usually submit their family’s favorite recipes or something they have a sentimental attachment to. This makes them one of the best places to look for regional dishes.
After looking through dozens of cookbooks from 1917 through today, there was nothing resembling the grape salad in the New York Times. In fact, there were only a few salad recipes that included either grapes or sour cream and the few recipes that had both where almost all variations on chicken salad.
The closest recipe to New York Times Grape Salad I could find was in the Minnesota Heritage Cookbook, which published a recipe call Grape-Cucumber Salad in 1979. The recipe was listed as Middle Eastern and called for grapes, sliced cucumber, mint, and lemon juice to be mixed with dill and yogurt “or sour cream” and served cold.
The majority of recipes with grapes included pineapple or other fruits and some sort of citrus dressing, which makes a lot of sense when you think about Minnesota’s climate and the availability of grapes here until recently. When people had them, they weren’t going to waste them by mixing them with two cups of sour cream.
When you look at the comments around the web, it’s pretty clear that Minnesotans don’t have any attachment to this salad and it doesn’t have any connection to the state. It also doesn’t mean it’s never been served here before, for all we know Paul Bunyan and Big Foot have it all the time.
What doesn’t make sense and why Minnesotan’s are so ticked off about this is we come from a state with a rich agricultural tradition that grows many of the ingredients used in Thanksgiving dishes around the country, and this recipe ignores those contributions and our collective cultural heritage.
Mark is Umami's publisher